Haiti’s earthquake: a future after mercy

The existing levels of human insecurity in Haiti make the country’s post-disaster recovery even more difficult. All the more important that the world gets the response right and makes a sustained commitment, says Johanna Mendelson Forman.
Johanna Mendelson Forman
26 January 2010

In the thirty seconds that it took for an earthquake of 7.0 on the Richter scale to devastate Port au Prince on 12 January 2010, the fate of this small Caribbean nation of 10 million people became the rest of the world’s concern. The estimated death-toll of more than 200,000, with injuries to perhaps double that number, give point to the journalist Nicholas Kristof’s remark that “today, we are all Haitians”.

The graphic satellite images and news broadcasts that followed have conveyed the vast scale of destruction, the desperation of an already poor people on the edge of survival – and thus the degree of sustained effort that will be needed in the weeks and months ahead.

The sudden loss of 2% of any population (and damage to very many more) is overwhelming, but Haiti’s experience is worsened by the fact that most of those killed were in and around the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. A city built to accommodate 50,000 inhabitants, its population had reached almost 3 million as a result of urban in-migration - a factor that itself underscores the lack of opportunity in the rest of country, where poor infrastructure, deforestation, and extreme poverty have made even subsistence living virtually impossible.  

Even more daunting is that 75% of Haiti’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and 56% (4.5 million people) on less than $1 per day. Any recovery from disaster is difficult, but for Haiti it will require a complete rethinking of how to do development. If the mantra before the earthquake hit was to help Haitians go “from misery to poverty”, it is hard to find the words that will characterise this attempt to build a new nation. The former United States president Bill Clinton, now the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, argued that the task now is to “build back better.”  But in these desperate circumstances, what will “better” consist of?

A state of failure

Haiti has endured many natural tragedies. In June 1770, an earthquake levelled Port-au-Prince; in May 1842, the northern city of Cap Hatien was destroyed, and 10,000 people killed; in 2008, a triple assault of hurricanes tore apart the city of Gonaive. Haiti’s citizens have experienced the full spectrum of disasters in a nation already suffering from weak infrastructure, a lack of administrative capacity, and extreme corruption at all levels of government. Haiti was in this sense a “failed state” long before the term became part of the political language of the post-cold-war era.

Haiti’s independence from France in 1804 marked a high point in western as well as national history as the only successful slave revolt ever mounted in the Americas. The revolt inflicted grave financial harm to France’s empire, causing it to lose two-thirds of its world trade and culminating in Napoleon Bonaparte’s sale of Louisiana to the United States for the sum of $15 million. The treatment of Haiti and its people in this era is representative of a longer history marked by the international community’s consistent prejudice against and exclusion of Haiti; the various foreign-inspired attempts to mould Haiti into a cohesive state have neglected to address the political, social and economic problems that are at the root of its near-failure in the first place.

In a country where institutions did not provide justice, education, or health benefits to the majority, Haitian leaders were never able to lay the foundation for democratic rule. The various attempts at participatory elections only led to a reinforcement of corruption and the entrenchment of repressive security forces that confined political power to a wealthy elite.

In 1990, a United States-led multinational force was deployed to help monitor Haiti’s first democratic elections, which were won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas movement. In 2004, Haiti was on the verge of state failure after the government succumbed to mob violence that forced President Aristide’s departure from office.

Both the interventions and the disasters have continued. The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah) remained in the country even after the democratic elections of February 2006 that brought a new president, René Préval, to office; and a series of hurricanes in 2008 inflicted great damage. Yet the year before the earthquake of January 2010 also brought a degree of optimism. The UN mandate for Minustah was renewed in October 2009, amid recognition that - despite problems - the 9,000 UN peacekeepers and civilian police were helping to lay the foundation of public security. Indeed, the earthquake has also had a severe impact on the UN in Haiti: the destruction of its headquarters and the largest loss of life in any mission in its history (around sixty-one personnel killed, including thirty-one senior officials) means that the UN will also have to replenish its own field-staff if it is going to continue its valuable role in Haiti’s future.

It was in this more secure and stable environment that attracted over 400 potential investors to attend a conference in October 2009 led by Bill Clinton to examine the potential for a public-private partnership approach to develop Haiti. René Préval’s government had scheduled legislative elections for February 2010. Many considered that Haitian politics had moved from a more inchoate set of political alliances to a growing movement toward the political centre. The business community in particular sensed that this was a pivotal moment in Haiti’s history where a commitment to better governance and a new flow of capital could Haiti toward a brighter future. The economist Paul Collier, who had been recruited by the UN to assess the potential for Haiti’s development, even suggested that Haiti possessed assets - its geographic location in a region where the size of the US market was a definite plus in attracting more businesses to invest - that gave it the chance of a brighter future.

After tragedy, recovery

Haiti has become the scene of a tremendous humanitarian operation that is attempting to cope with formidable infrastructure challenges that have made coordination of assistance after this disaster one of the most complex in the recent history of humanitarianism.

The United Nations and the United States, with the help of the European Union, Canada, Brazil, the Organisation of American States (OAS), and scores of other countries have sent disaster assistance; over 24,000 US soldiers have been deployed to deliver aid and provide logistical support; UN peacekeepers are also helping to move food and water and to provide shelter; a great variety of NGOs – Haitian and international, those already on the ground and those arriving with doctors, nurses and engineers – are providing comfort and alleviating suffering to the best they can.

At a policy level, the international community is seeking to formulate a coherent agenda for Haiti. A conference for the larger donor community was convened in Montreal on 25 January 2010 - following a pre-meeting in the Dominican Republic - to coordinate efforts and plan longer-term assistance, attended by representatives of twenty nation-states, the UN, and the World Bank. The Montreal gathering agreed to hold a major conference on Haiti’s future at the United Nations in New York in March 2010.

But as the awesome scope of the disaster and of Haitians’ human-security needs are established in the wake of the nightmare of 12 January, it is crucial that the mobilisation of mercy is sustained and a dynamic of longer-term recovery encouraged.

The cost of Haiti’s rebuilding is being urgently discussed. At the Dominican Republic meeting, a $10-billion, five-year assistance-programme was proposed; the Montreal conference heard comparable sums being suggested. But while money will surely flow into Haiti, there is the danger that the US and other actors will be faced with newer emergencies that distract donors from Haiti and leave the country and its reconstruction incomplete. This is the risk of any externally driven nation-building, and it also points to the new direction that is needed if Haiti is to recover and rebuild. For the process of recovery will have to be driven by Haitians themselves: by its elected government (despite its own losses of infrastructure and its weak state), by its impoverished but resilient and creative people, and by the more than 1 million Haitians of the diaspora (who contribute an astounding 40%-plus to Haiti’s GDP). 

There is some encouragement here that the Dominican Republic may prove to be both one of the greatest proponents of the rebuilding of its Hispaniola neighbour and one of the largest beneficiaries. The Dominican Republic’s president, Leonel Fernández, understands how important Haiti’s reconstruction is to his country’s own future; and the republic’s other political and business leaders see the potential enormous influx of funds for post-earthquake recovery as a potential source of investment and growth.  Much of the sourcing of materials, supplies and technical assistance for Haiti in coming months will come from the Dominican Republic. This alone could be a major economic stimulus; more importantly, it could lead to the political, social, and economic reconciliation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic that has long eluded these countries. There are great challenges and great opportunities here.

The belief that something positive may emerge from Haiti’s suffering is also supported by the Barack Obama administration’s rapid response and mobilisation of humanitarian assistance – evident in the immediate commitment of $100 million in aid, the rapid dispatch of secretary of state Hillary Clinton to Haiti, and the logistical support of US military assets. There is a sharp contrast here with the response of the George W Bush administration to hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the failure to relieve the plight of New Orleans’s poor and deprived citizens received global attention.

The reaction of this United States administration to the Haiti disaster reinforces its overall commitment to a multilateralist approach. In relation to international relations and to humanitarian assistance alike, such an approach is central to any effective global policy of engagement in the 21st century.


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